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Kicking a hippie is a powerful motivator

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, May 19, 2010 21:21 EDT
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Via The Monkey Cage, here’s interesting research showing that the currently trendy concept of “nudges” to modify public behavior might backfire when it comes to conservatives. The concept is a popular one with behavioral economists, as epitomized by the book titled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The idea is that you can adjust people’s behavior without legislating it by exploiting certain things we know about human psychology. This blog post summarizes some of the ideas, the main ones being that you should make doing the right thing the path of least resistance and that you should use constant feedback that’s rooted in emotional responses (like providing happy or frowny faces). The idea on reducing energy consumption is to send out bills with frowny faces for people who use more energy than average and happy faces for people who use less.

Generally speaking, this kind of nudging works pretty well, but it has its limits (which the proponents accept—they call people who resist “defiers”). People are, after all, not stupid and even simple information can be distorted through an ideological or tribal lens. And that’s what this new research found might be happening when we’re talking about the simple nudge measure of providing happy or frowny faces on electric bills. When people were subjected to this nudge, this is what they found:

* A Democratic household that pays for electricity from renewable sources, that donates to environmental groups, and that lives in a liberal neighbourhood reduces its consumption by 3% in response to this nudge.
* A Democratic household that is also a high user reduces its consumption by 6%.
* A Republican household that does not pay for electricity from renewable sources and that does not donate to environmental groups increases its consumption by 1%.

Now, 1% isn’t so much that I’m prepared to say this is conclusive at all, but it’s still intriguing. If the frowny face is perceived as belonging to liberals—and it probably is, since the face is sad that you are wasting energy—then seeing it frown might actually provide a conservative with pleasure, and therefore it rewards wastefulness. On this site, we’ve discussed the various “kick a hippie” anti-environmentalism initiatives that conservatives undertake to both reassure themselves that they’re not bad people for wasting and to piss off liberals. (For instance, check out the comments here.) In fact, many conservatives are less about policy and principles in general, and their ideology can be summed up as hatred of those perceived to be liberals.

This is a sticky situation, because the only thing I can think would work at all on some conservatives would be to have someone they look up to talk up conservation. But even then, it’s really not likely to work. Again, people are really clever rationalizing machines, and they’re going to find ways to reconcile contradictory information to suit them. This is doubly true of conservatives, who seem less and less bothered by cognitive dissonance all the time. I think that if an authority figure started to promote conservation, there’s likely two reactions from at least the asshole conservatives—they’ll either reject the authority figure for having gone “soft” or they’ll think that he’s just saying something to placate some imaginary liberal authorities, but he doesn’t really believe it. In these cases, I imagine hearing an appeal to be better people from this authority figure will cause them to double down the asshole behavior in defiance of the imaginary authorities that want to ruin the good time to be had by flicking a light on and off for no reason.

That said, I think this mostly applies to conservatives who are strongly motivated by the “kick a hippie” mentality. This describes a lot of evangelical Christians, but some of them are amendable to arguments that come from somewhere else besides the urge to piss off the supposedly all-powerful liberal elite. There’s hope some of them might be peeled off from their more hateful brethren with arguments about protecting the earth. But I’m pessimistic that you’ll get many, especially if they’re older than 25. Fundamentalist Christianity is just the sanctified version of “kick a hippie”—call it “kick a hippie for Jesus”.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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